Dearest readers, please find attached (well, not attached, but if you keep reading you’ll get there) a long list of elaborate excuses as to why I have officially become the worst blogger in the cyber-cosmos. Some of them may seem a little far-fetched, but each and every one of them is true. I swear. Even the one where I almost got engaged to a Japanese businessman called Akira.
Are you sitting comfortably? (Because this is going be quite long and ramble-y. Seriously, maybe you should go and make a quick cup of tea before we start.) Ok, then. I shall begin…
1. I went to Beijing in January and inhaled so much smog that I almost died. So after all that exam nonsense was over I set off on a six-week Asian adventure to Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, to visit some much-neglected friends and eat terrifying amounts of amazing food. But before leaving the country I spent a few days in Beijing with Daniel. Unfortunately I couldn’t have picked a worse time to go. Did you read the news about the killer smog? It was bad, dear readers. Very bad. In fact, the smog was so worryingly thick that Daniel and I decided it would be much safer to stay inside his Dongzhimen apartment, under a duvet, eating takeaway and drinking soju and watching Sex and the City. Which is exactly what we did. And it was marvellous.
2. I went to Tokyo and couldn’t stop being amazed at all the stuff. I’d been to Tokyo once before, but way back in 2005, so it was great to go back. I spent my first day there aimlessly walking around, gaping in wonder at all the tall, swanky buildings and at all the polite, civilised people. People who patiently wait in queues, say things like “excuse me”, and never use their elbows as weapons. These people are also unbearably stylish – the Japanese all seem to be experts at that “effortless chic” thing. I felt a tad ridiculous arriving at Narita from Beijing wearing a reindeer scarf, zebra-print hat and leopard-print earmuffs (which in China, I swear, is the absolute height of sophistication).
This is the Tokyo subway map. *Brainmelt*.
3. I got very drunk in Yokohama. And from what I recall, this is what happened: I met my friend Brenna in the afternoon-ish time, and we did all sorts of wholesome activities, like go on a giant ferris wheel and visit the Cup Noodle Museum (because the Ramen Museum is totally overrated). We were even befriended by a lovely woman in a soba restaurant who climbed a stepladder to pick flowers from a tree to give us. But then we started drinking. Like I said, from what I recall, we went to a party… somewhere… and drank stuff… and then took some trains… and drank some more stuff… and then ended up eating sashimi at 3 o’clock in the morning, while drinking yet more stuff. The next day, to recover from the night before, we spent the entire afternoon sampling beer from Yokohama’s many, many craft breweries. Which of course meant we were soon drunk again. Such is life.
Picking flowers, just for us.
4. I got snowed-in in Hokkaido and the only way to survive was to eat tons of ramen and drink loads of Sapporo beer. Ok, that’s a lie. But there was A LOT of snow. And there was a shovel at the door of my hostel which people actually had to use so we could get out the door. Ah, what a lovely hostel it was! Free coffee and toast and central heating, and other guests who became good friends. Together we visited the Sapporo beer factory (which is basically a very small museum above a very large bar, and therefore excellent) and the city’s little hidden street of ramen shops. Who knew you could order a bowl of ramen with a huge chunk of butter floating in it? My arteries still hurt thinking about it. But the snow, dear readers! It was beautiful!
It was especially fun dragging my wheely suitcase through this.
New friends Lee and Cyndi at Hokkaido University!
5. I ate so much sushi that I almost died. Have you ever had that feeling when you know you really should stop eating, but you can’t because it’s SUSHI – and not just any old sushi but HOKKAIDO SUSHI – and even though you’re almost certainly on the verge of death, and you know you’ll regret it for the rest of the week, you just somehow manage to keep shovelling it in? Well, I had that. So I should probably avoid all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants in future.
6. I was busy doing strange rituals at a “love temple”. I met my friend Etsuko in Kyoto and we went to the Love Temple to find out our fortunes. The first thing we had to do was close our eyes, make a wish, and touch a special rock thing, and then walk with our eyes closed to another special rock thing without peeking. Which was kind of hazardous considering how many crazed young women were attempting to do this at the same time. There was a lot of treading on toes and screaming. Then we had to pick a paper “fortune” out of a box, and mine translated to something like, “although you’ll have to wait ages and ages and ages, you’ll probably still find some bloke to get married to, so everything’ll be just peachy, innit”.
Pick a fortune, any fortune… oh and by the way it’s 200 yen.
7. I stayed in a hostel in Kyoto and had to put all my energy into not killing all the Americans (no offence, Americans). It was one of those huuuuge hostels with a common room specially designed (with tatami) for irritating backpackers to sit about in all day comparing which Asian countries they’ve “done”. Normally I would have avoided this room completely, but there was free coffee there. And I just couldn’t help listening in on the Americans’ conversations, especially when they were Skyping their moms back home…
“It’s so hard here because, like, everything’s in Japanese, and literally nobody speaks English, so it’s, like, impossible to do stuff.”
“So in Tokyo we went to this, like, fish market, and I tried a bunch of stuff, but I have no idea what any of it was.”
“Ohmygod, the guys in Japan are, like, sooo cute! I met this totally awesome British guy in my hostel in Osaka…”
I drank my free coffee and thought, Kill. Me. Now.
8. I stayed in a traditional ryokan and couldn’t get out of my futon/stop watching Japanese gameshows. I couldn’t understand the gameshows, but that didn’t make them any less entertaining. Especially since I could watch them from the comfort of my futon while wearing my yukata and drinking green tea.
Any idea what’s going on here? Me neither.
9. I became obsessed with green tea-flavoured stuff. I was in matcha heaven in Japan. Cake, ice cream, hot latte, iced latte, Lipton Matcha Milk… and when I found green tea shortbread in a bakery in Nara I think actually shed a tear of joy.
Bliss in a teacup.
10. I discovered takoyaki. An Osaka specialty, it’s basically bits of octopus in batter, fried and topped with various amazing sauces. And it’s cheap and you can get it all over the city. YUM.
Shoji-san’s takoyaki shop of wonders.
11. I almost got engaged to a Japanese businessman called Akira. Shoji-san, who owned a takoyaki shop near my hostel in Osaka, recommended a local bar and said I should go and check it out. So of course I did. The bar was about the size of an aeroplane bathroom and was absolutely packed with tipsy men in suits. “Come! Sit!” shouted the barman, pointing to the one free stool in the room. I sat, and ordered a beer. The men sitting beside me eventually plucked up the courage to introduce themselves, via Google Translate, and before I knew what was happening I was knocking back pint glasses of sake and tomato juice with them. And then another man-in-a-suit came and joined us. “I am very much looking forward to receiving your telephone number,” he said, and showed me his company ID badge. His name was Akira. He continued, “We had a lot of snow here last winter. Rome was not built in a day! I love you!” I ordered another sake with tomato juice from the barman and asked Akira if he was from Osaka. “I love you! I need you! Marry me! We had a lot of snow here last winter!” was his reply. And so the evening continued.
Akira: “Rome was… not…”
Me: “built in a day?”
Akira: “Yes! I need you! Last winter…”
Me: “We had a lot of snow?”
Akira: “I love you! I am very much looking forward to receiving your telephone number!”
When I decided to finally leave the bar everyone seemed genuinely devastated. “Come back tomorrow,” said the barman. “This is my wife!” shouted Akira.
12. I was busy taking photos of really old people taking photos of really old trees:
You can write your own caption for this.
13. I was throwing magic beans at Tomomi (who was pretending to be a demon, obviously). The day I met my friend Tomomi in Osaka also happened to be one of Japan’s strangest festivals. “On this day every year, someone dresses up as a demon and everyone throws beans at them to drive out their bad luck,” Tomomi explained. Well I’m always up for driving out my bad luck, I said. So the only question was where could we purchase these special beans? “In 7 Eleven!” said Tomomi. Well of course! So we did the necessary shopping and then went to a park and took turns wearing a plastic demon mask and throwing beans at each other. And I can say for a fact that my luck has definitely improved since, so the ritual must have worked. For example:
14. I got invited out for dinner by two 70-year-old Japanese guys. Ai, a girl in my hostel, and I were wandering round the local neighbourhood looking for a place to eat, when two very enthusiastic and possibly slightly intoxicated gentlemen asked if we’d let them take us for dinner. Obviously, we said yes. It was hilarious.
Just an average night in Osaka, maybe.
15. I went up the Umeda Sky Building and OH MY GOD.
As the Lonely Planet says, it’s like “Arc de Triomphe meets Bladerunner”…
And involves going up the scariest escalators ever…
To see views like this!
16. I went to Taiwan and it was Chinese New Year and I ate so much food that I almost died. After Japan I spent ten action-packed days in Taiwan, which is probably the best country ever. I was lucky to be staying with my wonderful friend Meikai and his family, and that meant that I got to experience Chinese New Year in the proper way: with family, friends, temples, red envelopes, lottery tickets, card games, and (of course) a LOT of food.
Have you ever seen anything more amazing?
17. I was busy going up and down mountains in Taiwan at a fzillion miles an hour with Meikai who should not really be allowed behind the wheel when there are hairpin bends involved. But what’s important is that everyone survived. So no need to worry, mother.
18. I couldn’t stop shovelling amazing Taiwanese food into my face. As you know, I’m quite adventurous when it comes to trying new food (must I remind you of the duck feet?) so every time somebody asked, “do you want to try ___?” I responded with an enthusiastic YES, OF COURSE… I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT IS BUT GIVE ME ALL THE FOOD NOW. And I swear, everything I tried was beyond delicious. Even the stinky tofu. And the slimy oysters. And the mysterious black soup.
19. I discovered Ice Monster in Taipei. Remember ages ago when I said that frozen yoghurt was the new ice cream? Well I have news for you, dear readers: Ice Monster is the new froyo. I went to this snazzy joint with my friend Vivian and ordered (on Etsuko’s recommendation) a mound of mango flavoured shaved-ice-stuff roughly the same size as a basketball. “I’ll never be able to eat all of that!” I exclaimed, before devouring the entire lot. And what a satisfying brainfreeze I had afterwards!
20. I was writing wishes on a paper lantern and sending it into the sky, and it was ever so nice:
Original artwork by me.
Up into the stratosphere, or somewhere.
21. I went to Hong Kong and they have things like Irn Bru and pear cider and hummus there, and so I temporarily forgot about the outside world. But can you really blame me?
22. I was watching another sunset from another skyscraper. I’ve decided that my new travelling “thing” will be to go up to the top of a skyscraper on my last evening in a country, take arty pictures of the sunset and get all sentimental about leaving. On my last evening in Japan I went up the Umeda Sky Building, which was by far the best skyscraper I’ve ever been up (did you SEE the pictures?!), but the place was kind of overrun with affectionate sunset-observing couples and I felt a bit like a stupid foreign gooseberry. The top of Taipei 101 was more fun because I had Meikai to take arty pictures of the sunset with. But in Hong Kong, for the last night of my six-week Asian extravaganza, I was alone again in my skyscraper. And also it was so misty/smoggy that the view was sort of non-existent. But I still managed to get all nostalgic, and there was a coffee shop, so it was ok.
It’s a long way down…
23. I came back to Baotou and have gone mad and joined the gym. Please try not to die of laughter, but since I got back to Baotou (nine days ago) I have decided to turn over a new leaf and take some exercise. Which means I’ve been doing ridiculous things like running on treadmills and participating in “hot yoga” classes. Yes, dear readers, I know exactly what you’re thinking: why in the name of Genghis Khan did I wait a year after leaving INDIA to take up YOGA in INNER MONGOLIA? And the answer to that is… well, actually I have no idea, but I can tell you this: I did a headstand last night in a ten-billion-kajillion-degree room and I didn’t die. And the Chinese yoga teacher even kindly helped me when I got stuck upside-down, and he didn’t even laugh. Very much.
24. I have finally started studying Chinese. Seeing as I live in China and am surrounded by quite a lot of Chinese people, I thought it might be about time to consider expanding my vocabulary beyond “ni hao” (hello) and “ting bu dong” (I don’t understand). And so I have been in Baotou Library with my very patient friend, Dani, practising the four infamous tones and whatnot. So when a group of naked-but-friendly ladies in the gym changing room started a conversation with me the other day, instead of looking gormless I was actually able to say “I’m learning Chinese, but I can only speak a little bit.” To which they responded, in the typical Baotou way, by screaming and flailing and telling me that I’m beautiful.
Proof that I did some studying!
25. I am busy stalking my Chinese future husband. More on that later, perhaps.
26. I am getting ready to start another term of “teaching”. Yes, dear readers, the long holiday is finally over and I have to go back to work tomorrow. But now that I know my students (and am practically fluent in Chinese) it really doesn’t feel like work anymore, but more like chatting with loads of ridiculously friendly Inner Mongolian girls about life and love and what we ate at Chinese New Year. So I’m actually looking forward to it. All those weeks of travelling in all those places was incredible and fabulous, but there’s something about Baotou that I just love. You still might not believe me, but Inner Mongolia really is the centre of the universe.
The End-of-Spring-Festival fireworks in Baotou, last Saturday.